Time for good deeds from the dying Catholic church
Amid shame and scandal, the church’s clerics do little or nothing; it needs another ecclesiastical convulsion
The Observer, Saturday 15 March 2014 20.00 GMT
A woman of faith strolling elegantly through her 70s spoke to me last week about betrayal and hypocrisy. This lady’s Catholicism has nourished and sustained her every day of her life but now, though her faith remains, her respect for the people who lead her church has vanished. In its place there is only anger and bitterness.
Just over a year after Cardinal Keith O’Brien was forced to resign as leader of the Catholic church in Scotland, the consequences of decades of abuse and lies by priests and bishops have been laid bare.
The revelation last week that around half of the Catholic parishes in the west of Scotland may have to close in the next few years owing to a shortage of priests seemed at first to be shocking. But this has been whispered for years now and did not surprise those of us who have witnessed the slow withering of the Catholic church.
In Scotland, it is now barely fit for its purpose of bringing souls to their saviour and providing light and hope in places where there is none. It has nothing to say any more about the issues of the day and, frankly, who would listen anyway?
There are, currently, only two men training to become priests from the from the church’s west of Scotland heartlands. In less than a generation, it is expected that barely 40 priests will remain. This is an optimistic figure as few Catholic families remain who would happily hand their sons into the care of this sick and corrupt institution. Meanwhile, the church will continue to haemorrhage serving priests disillusioned with their vocation or because they ought never to have been there to begin with.
Those of us who had hoped to see some signs of penitence or, at least, self-awareness from the hierarchy following the O’Brien scandal are still waiting. Catherine Deveney, the journalist who broke the O’Brien story in the Observer, has since told of her treatment at the hands of the officers of her church.
She has received abusive correspondence from senior clergymen and a “horrifying” letter written by the church’s director of communications, Peter Kearney, an individual who wields a baleful and disproportionate quantum of influence in the church and who similarly has long outlived his usefulness.
Leo Cushley, a Vatican message boy with next to no pastoral experience, has been parachuted into the top job in Scotland. He has said or done little of significance since his appointment, apart from a couple of Homes & Gardens-type press interviews. Do not expect that state to change soon
Another prelate, Archbishop Mario Conti, now lives in gilded retirement in a £750,000 grace-and-favour mansion on Glasgow’s South Side. His decade-long tenure as leader of the city’s Catholics passed without any distinction whatsoever, save for a bizarre and camp obsession with the shinier excesses of Italian culture, about which, of course, they talk of little else in the pubs and clubs frequented by his people.
Less than a mile from Conti’s Ponderosa, food banks are doing a brisk trade, while secular agencies seek action on the plight of 250,000 Scots children living in poverty. Well, at least someone is responding to them, even if the Catholic church isn’t.
On Tuesday morning, the Very Reverend Dr Andrew McLellan, former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, will discuss, for the first time, the details of the remit of the McLellan commission, established to undertake a critical review of all aspects of Safeguarding policy, procedure and practice within the Catholic church in Scotland. A more appropriate setting for this event would have been a recently locked stable with a big horse galloping gaily down the road into the distance.
Few doubt that McLellan will bring diligence and integrity to his task, but unless his remit includes looking at the causes and effects of priestly sex abuse in the Catholic church in Scotland it will achieve nothing.
Here are three main causes: a catastrophic failure of leadership stretching back 60-odd years; a recruitment policy that appeared to have been influenced by Willy Wonka and a pathological and sinister hatred of homosexuality. This simply drove many young, broken and fragile gay Catholics into the priesthood where they were expected to subsume their wretched sexuality in a life of celibacy and denial.
It was a tragic mixture of self-delusion and resentment and would leave many of them prey to the wickedness that lurked in the dark heart of this thoroughly discredited institution. Denial, self-delusion, bitterness, resentment and intimidation: the hallmarks of the Catholic church in Scotland.
Even in this its darkest hour, though, the church has a shining opportunity to make something good of its straitened circumstances. Many of the churches that may have to shut were built brick by brick by the poor Irish immigrants who revived Catholicism in Scotland. The land upon which they stand and the grand homes that were built to house their priests were purchased with the help of their self-sacrifice. More than 50,000 people have used a food bank to feed themselves this year while child poverty in Scotland has reached obscene levels.
As a good act of contrition and reparation for the damage it has caused to Scotland and the betrayal of its own, the Catholic hierarchy must give these properties back to their people for the purpose of providing succour to the poor, alms to the traveller and solace to those in distress.
Travelling through Lewis and Harris the other week, not for the first time I had cause to admire the stripped-down and spare beauty of the Free Church of Scotland. Unencumbered by careless devotions to forgotten saints and moving Madonnas, it continues to provide wisdom and discernment to those whom it touches. It is closer to what St Peter and St Paul thought God’s church should look like than that which Rome has constructed.
The Scottish Catholic church requires another ecclesiastical convulsion. In this, it would join with its brothers and sisters in the reformed traditions, minus a lot of the baggage it clung on to after the first one.